World Agenda

Last updated: 11 february, 2011 - 10:15 GMT

The Forum visits Sri Lanka

Executive Producer Emily Kasriel recording for The Forum in Galle, Sri Lanka

Executive Producer Emily Kasriel recording for The Forum in Galle, Sri Lanka

The Forum’s Executive Producer Emily Kasriel describes the team’s trip to Galle and the challenge of recording in front an apprehensive audience not accustomed to openly debating topics.

While The Forum team were in India, recording programmes at the Jaipur Literary Festival, a front page story in The Times of India was causing concern.

Two internationally celebrated authors, Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai, were pulling out of the Galle Festival in Sri Lanka – our next stop.

It was claimed they were responding to pressure by a Paris-based NGO (non-governmental organisation) to boycott the festival because of restrictions on free speech in Sri Lanka.

About The Forum

Bridget Kendall has presented The Forum, the show which brings together three innovative thinkers from different cultures and perspectives to put forward new ideas, since 2008.

Each week one of the guests is invited to present an idea in just 60 seconds which they believe will make the world a better place. Once the idea has been proposed, all the guests discuss its merit.

Bridget has also been a BBC diplomatic correspondent since 1998, previously working as a foreign correspondent in Moscow (1989-94) and Washington (1994-98).

Speaking fluent Russian and French, she was the first woman to win the James Cameron Award for distinguished Journalism (1992) and in 1994 was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

We had to consider our position. Our recording was scheduled to launch the Galle Festival itself and was being quoted by the festival organisers as evidence that the event was pushing for greater freedom of expression.

Our first show was entitled “After Shock, the Lingering Legacy of Civil War” and one of our guests was a very prominent Sri Lankan human rights activist, Sunila Abeyesekera.

After many emails and phone calls to BBC Sri Lanka correspondent Charles Haviland, we decided to press ahead.

First impressions

Flying into the capital Colombo and journeying down along the south-west coastal road to the town of Galle, it felt very different from the intensity and scale of Jaipur.

Galle itself is a sleepy town of faded colonial buildings with porches, rickshaws and tuk-tuks, with the sounds of the Indian Ocean crashing into the ramparts of the old Dutch fort.

On the eve of the festival, volunteers were milling around preparing tea and information stalls, and placing brightly coloured cushions on the rocks for visitors to sit on.

Despite our initial concerns, by the time we arrived at the site, we found out that the only author to directly boycott the event was South African writer Damon Galgut.

Booing audience

Presenter Bridget Kendall (left) on stage

Presenter Bridget Kendall (left) on stage

A number of Sri Lankans had warned me that, because it was unusual to be having this type of public debate in Sri Lanka, our 500-strong audience in the Hall de Gaulle might not be very forthcoming.

As the recording began, there was a tense atmosphere in the hall.

Cautious and measured at the start, the discussion unfolded with increasing passion.

To bring an outside perspective, we had invited Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on to the panel. She spoke about the place of the novelist to learn the facts about a conflict and then turn the facts into truths.

One member of the audience criticised Sunila, arguing she was part of the problem, not the solution. The hall rung to sounds of boos and Chimamanda rose to Sunila’s defence.

After the programme many people came up to us to apologise for the audience’s behaviour.

Executive Producer Emily Kasriel and sound engineer Tom Burchell recording for The Forum in Galle, Sri Lanka

Emily Kasriel and sound engineer Tom Burchell recording at the festival

But we felt that we had both provided an insight for our global listeners into Sri Lanka at this delicate state of transition, and provided a forum – be it for only an hour – for Sri Lankans to consider and express how they felt about their future.

Risk of offence

Our second programme offered what we thought would be a more intimate and less controversial subject – “Love, Marriage and Divorce”.

As Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, we decided to kickstart the show with a Sri Lankan song and poem about the Buddha’s abandonment of his wife as he embarked on his spiritual path.

Every week I sum up the show in a painting, and so we projected an image of the Buddha, his wife and a heart on the stage.

When our Buddhist scholar saw this image she explained that it could be seen as very offensive in a country which sees itself as the defender of the Buddhist faith.

We didn’t want a playful image becoming the story, so we took it down and began to record.

Resonating message

Sound engineer Tom Burchell backstage

Tom Burchell backstage

The audience was predominantly female, and packed to the brim, eager to throw their experiences and opinions into the mix.

It was really fascinating to see how the life choices and conflicting emotions felt by Buddha’s wife more than 2,500 years ago, continue to resonate today.

And at the end the programme our guests returned to the wife of Buddha, no longer merely abandoned, but now empowered as her own spiritual leader. The audience couldn’t get enough of it.

The Forum’s two special recordings from the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka are broadcast on 12 and 26 February, click click here

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